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Understanding and explaining slavery

Published:Sunday | March 18, 2012 | 12:00 AM

Trevor A. Campbell, Contributor

I recently viewed a YouTube video titled 'A very Motty encounter', which featured a very spirited debate between the recently deceased radio journalist, Wilmot Perkins, and the lawyer and pan-African activist, Bert Samuels. This 20-minute exchange took place in the context of Perkins' call-in radio programme.

The topic of debate was whether or not the institution of slavery had any redeeming qualities and what lessons, if any, the formerly enslaved population could have learned from that experience. Mr Perkins' main argument was essentially this: While he did not condone slavery, he thought that the descendants of the enslaved populations should have made a more concerted effort to study what he regards as the more advanced civilisation of those who had carried out the enslavement. And - if they had done this - places such as Jamaica would be much more developed than they currently are.

Mr Samuels, the pan-Africanist, would have none of this, which he regarded as nothing short of heresy. And, in his view: What Mr Perkins was suggesting only provided further illustration of the continuing psychological impact of slavery on the minds of the educated elite. In other words, according to the logic of Mr Samuels' arguments: individuals such as Mr Perkins (whether they are aware of it or not) were little more than lame apologists for colonialism and slavery.

race a critical consideration

However, in spite of the differences between these two gentlemen - the Eurocentric Wilmot and the Afrocentric Samuels - they do have one important thing in common. Their approach to the study of the historical process, in general, and the study of chattel slavery, in particular, is informed almost entirely by racial/ethnic considerations. They both appear to have very limited awareness of the role that the struggles between contending social classes play in the development of human history.

The lack of a scientific methodology (which includes a class analysis) for explaining historical phenomena prevented them from developing a greater appreciation of paradoxes and contradictions. The result is entrapment in an intellectual blind alley. The vast majority of the Jamaican population is desperately searching for scientific explanations regarding the historical forces that shaped their present conditions, where the world is heading, and how to prepare themselves for the journey ahead.

In light of the foregoing discussion - and the continuing debates in Jamaica and the Caribbean on issues related to slavery (see, for instance, Michael Dingwall's letter to the editor: 'Hypocritical historians', The Gleaner, March 7, 2012) - this writer thought it would be useful to share with readers an article he did for a Southern California-based regional newspaper, in 1997. It was written in response to a controversy that had developed at an elementary school over the issue of how a white history teacher had presented her lesson on slavery. The use of the Socratic method was an attempt to present complex ideas in a format that allows greater accessibility to the lay person.

Slavery's Role in American history: Complex and Paradoxical

By Trevor A. Campbell

The Inland Valley Daily Bulletin February 16, 1997.

The following is an imaginary dialogue between a truth-seeking parent and history teacher in the public-school system. It is inspired by the recent controversy at Fontana's Jurupa Hills Elementary School over a fifth-grade teacher's alleged misstatement concerning the role of slavery in US history and the attitude of the slaveholders toward their slaves.

Parent: How could anyone say that slavery was a good thing?

Teacher: Well, the answer to that question largely depends on which side of the fence you were on during that period. However, the first thing we have to be clear on is that slavery was an economic system based on the use of forced labour. The ideology of white supremacy arose from that system in an effort to justify its perpetuation, not the other way around. From the middle of the 17th century to the beginning of the civil war, the use of forced labour and commercial agriculture, in the South, were inextricably linked.

The massive and forceable importation of millions of Africans into the North American colonies, in even greater numbers after 1776, and particularly after the invention of the cotton gin, was not some sort of multicultural programme designed to add diversity to the US population. The Africans were brought here only after a class of landowners found it increasingly difficult to recruit sufficient numbers of indentured servants from Europe or to convert the native American population into the kind of workforce they required.

If you were a member of the merchant class living in Boston or Rhode Island, the slave trade and the products of slave labour would have provided much of your wealth. If you were an owner of a plantation in the South, your wealth would have been produced by slaves. From the standpoint of the economic interests of these two classes, slavery was seen as a good thing.

If you were white and living in the South during this period and you did not own slaves, you might have been ambivalent about slavery. On the one hand, as slavery expanded, your conditions worsened as you were pushed to the least productive land, but on the other hand, there was always a glimmer of hope that one day you might be in a position to own slaves yourself.

If you were a slave, it meant that you were the personal property of another human being. You could be bought and sold like any other commodity. You had no control over your existence. It is quite unlikely, therefore, that you would regard slavery as a good thing.

Parent: How were the slaves treated?

Teacher: The master provided the slaves with food, shelter and clothing, not out of any abstract sense of obligation but of necessity. No person could perform with the intensity the work demanded, particularly in the case of field labour, without food and some measure of rest. The master provided for the slave the same way a farmer would have provided for a draft animal used in agricultural production.

The larger the plantation, the greater was the number of slaves required to work on it and the less direct the relationship was between the field slaves and the owner. Overseers and slave drivers were used to direct the slaves' work and control their movements. There were slave rebellions; the most notable one was the one led by Nat Turner in Southampton County, Virginia, in 1831. The response of the slaveholders in that region was swift and furious. Many slaves were rounded up and executed or beaten.

From that year onward, the slave masters became more vigilant with regard to the monitoring of the slaves' movements. The slave codes became more rigid. This is also related to the fact that cotton had now become a lucrative export crop and the slaveholders were now pushing the slaves' physical endurance to the limit.

The slave owner could only be paternalistic to the slave who appeared to be submissive. The very wealthy slave-owning families had a more direct relationship with the slaves working in the household. The sometimes close relationship between the members of the family and the house slaves would approximate the relationship that exists today between many families and their pets.

Parent: OK, I'm beginning to understand the point you are trying to make about the interconnection between economic interest and moral valuation, and the relationship between people in the process of production, but how would you respond to the argument that while slavery may have been morally wrong, it was economically good for America?

Teacher: That is a very complex issue, but it forces us to confront some of the fundamental ironies and paradoxes of US history. For instance, it was the labour of the chattel slaves who planted the crops, cooked the meals and built the mansions of the Founding Fathers, in effect providing them with the leisure time to organise the revolt against colonial domination. However, it is quite unlikely that without slavery, the US would have been more developed than, say, Canada. In other words, the US economy got a jump-start because of the early generation of wealth through the use of slave labour.

Yet slavery still continues to be regarded as an aberration from the norm, a sore thumb in the country's otherwise glorious and democratic past, and not as central, with all of its paradoxes, to the nation's economic and cultural development. The contradiction between the idealised version of US history and the concrete realities of that development has been the source of the tension between those whose labour built the country and those who enjoyed the fruits of that labour. Not the least of the former have been the African-Americans, whose struggle for equality has been the basis of the country's dynamic cultural life.

Parent: I wonder how historians 200 years from now will assess the moral sensibilities of our time, when there is such a glaring discrepancy between what is technologically possible, and yet so many of our children are going without the basic necessities of life.

Teacher: That's a good question.

Trevor A. Campbell is a political economist. Email feedback to and